George Monbiot at his best

26 Sep

I’ll understand your raising a sceptical eyebrow at my assertion that George’s is a powerful and cogent voice which, on one of the two most existentially threatening issues humanity faces, needs to be widely heard. Why wouldn’t you be sceptical, given all I’ve said of its owner’s views on Syria? But if you look back at my most scathing posts on the man – this for instance – you’ll see a tendency to sneak in something, somewhere and somehow a little more complimentary.

His piece in today’s Guardian – While economic growth continues we’ll never kick our fossil fuels habit – is a case in point. It’s lucidly biting, closely argued and at several points packs an eminently quotable punch. Since its subject matter is neither Syria nor Russia it isn’t saying things I regard as deeply and irresponsibly wrong, nor is it dismissive of people – former UN weapons inspectors, Syrian clerics, Russia experts and former UK ambassadors – who’ve damn well earned the right to a hearing. No, there’s none of that. Insofar as we can compartmentalise any public figure’s opinions, this piece showcases Cogent, Caring and Well Informed George, as opposed to De Facto Path Smoother and Unwitting Aide for War Hawks George.

Its title says it all. Economic growth is antithetical to any reversal or even slowing down of the criminally insane course our rulers are bent on. (OK, I added the rulers bit myself as antidote to popular, media encouraged notions that as citizens of planet earth we have what lawyers call ‘joint and several responsibility’ for said criminal insanity. In propagating lifestylist, better-light-a-single-candle-than-curse-the-darkness  complacency, such notions do more harm than good when the hour is so very late.)

Let’s give an example or two. What’s the single most effective step we could take to drastically curb carbon emissions? Free public transport, of course. Everywhere, without exception. When? Tomorrow would be good, served with steely commitment to transformational improvement to bus and rail infrastructure.

Never mind for now the question of who will pay. Its specious common sense appeal is flawed in ideologically driven ways but here, since I haven’t space to set out the law of value, I’ll focus on the real question. George sees it, I think, but dimly. Take – I’m talking to fellow Brits here – our own small island. A key indicator of How Well The Economy Is Doing is given by the much perused August car sale figures. In the scenario I just set out, how do you suppose they’d be affected? Right, that’s the entire point! But would that tiny minority which most profits sit back and allow such a move, when that minority controls, in ways I again haven’t space to spell out, the levers through which democracy is stage managed to manufacture consensus?

Or take ‘our addiction’ to meat and dairy. Let’s set aside for now their Auschwitzian manner of production. (No, I’m not a vegetarian but see a massive problem in an arrogant and stupid – but profitable – belief, barely conscious, that our fate can be separated from that of other species.) Beef and dairy are up there with internal combustion when it comes to the greenhouse effect but it’s not about ‘our addiction’. As many know, shifting from meat and dairy isn’t so tough and comes with serious side benefits. But again, what are the implications for profits?

One last example, perhaps the most useful. Visit IKEA (or your retail therapy centre of choice) on Saturday; then, on Sunday, the now privatised municipal tip. There, in skips of splendid and soon to be crushed discardment, you see in a nutshell advanced capitalism’s – which is to say consumer capitalism’s – irreducible dependence on growth. Out with the old, in with the new.

Because you deserve it.

Which brings me to the “insofar as we can compartmentalise ” caveat I sneaked into the closing sentence of paragraph two. And to the caveat in my opening sentence: one of  the two most existentially threatening issues humanity faces …”

Bear with me while I draw the threads together.

Underlying Monbiot’s stance on Syria, a stance which sees him insisting – I think sincerely – he does not wish to see it attacked by the West, is a stubbornly empiricist refusal to join the dots. This intelligent, articulate and caring but proud and blinkered man looks at Syria as if Iraq and Libya had not happened; as if Yemen was not now being destroyed to curb Iran, to the ringing of cash registers at the heart of America’s military-industrial complex. Deeper yet, the truth he fails to see is that its wars on the middle east, which can’t entirely be reduced to hydrocarbon grabs – though it takes spectacular yet depressingly widespread myopia to ignore this aspect – are fuelled by precisely that insane demand for growth he denounces, and which is capitalism’s absolute and non negotiable dynamic. In short, that other existential threat, the thermonuclear armageddon Syria brings chillingly closer,1 is also driven by a growth imperative inherent to monopoly capitalism in the age of imperialism.

(An imperialism not to be confused with its colonialist precursor. Indeed, modern imperialism is far worse, liberated as it is from even those minimal responsibilities direct rule imposed.)

Now back to the other existential threat, the one we began with. Monbiot’s piece skewers with customary precision the insane growth so vital to capitalism, before closing with a rousing call:

Let’s be embarrassing. Let’s break the silence, however uncomfortable it makes us and others feel. Let’s talk about the great unmentionables: not just climate breakdown, but also growth and consumerism. Let’s create the political space in which well-intentioned parties can act. Let us talk a better world into being.

George, George. Let’s be even more embarrassing. Let’s bring in a word your piece omits. Not once do you mention capitalism. I understand that, really I do. It turns folk off, especially nice liberals (no, I’m not being sarcastic) whose education has led us to see a world driven more by ideas than material forces. It isn’t though, and that’s why we can’t for convenience’s sake do away with words – words I agree should be used sparingly – like profits, capitalism and ruling class.

And it’s why we can’t talk  a better world into being.


  1. Last week’s downing of a Russian plane, in effect by Israeli cynicism, has backfired. Russia’s announcement today – that it will replace Syria’s S-200 surface-to-air missiles with the vastly superior S-300 system – has my reluctant approval but only a fool would think the world a safer place as a result. In this respect I recommend this piece from Philip Giraldi; former counter-terrorism specialist and military intelligence officer with the CIA, and one of many gamekeepers turned poacher in respect of the West’s aggression.

5 Replies to “George Monbiot at his best

  1. GM will never denounce capitalism, he can’t. In his mind Capitalism equates to the diametrically opposed Socialism and therefore Corbyn. This may be an over simplification, but he’s thrown his lot in with the right wing elites and capitalism is their God. He knows it as surely as he knows consumerism is the antithesis of thrift and live and make do.
    I haven’t read his article but having read your response, which I know to trust, I don’t now need to…”thank you Dear Lord, for small mercies”.

    • Susan I still get (mild) stick for not being hard enough on George. Only this morning I had an email from Media Lens to that effect. I guess I have to take you all seriously on this. An excess of kindness, my one and only flaw, has been the bane of my life.

  2. The worst part of Monbiot’s article for me was this:

    “Beyond a certain point, economic growth – the force that lifted people out of poverty, and cured deprivation, squalor and disease – tips us back into those conditions.”

    It shows that Monbiot knows nothing about the history of capitalism and primitive accumulation. From its very inception, capitalist economic growth has created poverty and continues to do so. It’s this tacit acceptance of status quo mythology that makes pseudo-intellectuals like Monbiot so dangerous.

    • I agree Miguel. But Monbiot, wittingly or not, stumbles on the half truth that capitalism did have – at huge cost to its newly born proletariat, and huger cost to the victims of colonial plunder under that primitive accumulation you rightly refer to – an objectively progressive phase in advancing human productivity. I’m sure you and I would also agree that that progressive phase ended long before the nineteenth century drew to a close.

      In any case, it’s too generous a reading of Monbiot’s phrasing here to suppose he was speaking of that ‘objectively progressive phase’. Far more likely, he’s touting the idea of humankind liberated by market forces under Good Capitalism, as opposed to the Bad Capitalism we seem to have blundered into as if by accident …

      • Yes, I agree. Even though I think it’s impossible to know, looking back, whether that advance in productivity was ultimately positive or negative, when it comes to alleviating human suffering – or if we will be able to ultimately use that productivity for positive outcomes. What’s obvious is that it was inextricably connected with violence and tyranny.

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